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GloForward Feature: Exhaustion

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Hormonal Harmony:

A Solution to Midlife Exhaustion

by Susanne Haegele

January 8, 2021

Menopause is the time when your body presents you with the check for the life you have led up to then. 

Acknowledging and respecting your changing needs can be empowering, because the earlier you start looking after yourself, the smoother your menopause is likely to be.

And if you happen to already be experiencing the change, the good news is - it is NEVER too late to start looking after yourself. Your body will thank you for it and you’ll enjoy your life a lot more. 

Have you any idea how your mother and grandmother navigated their menopause? Possibly not, as this subject is only just emerging from the dark swamp of taboos. Their experience would be interesting for you to know, and if they are available, I do encourage you to ask. You may find out a lot about them that you never knew, and they might actually find relief in telling their story. 

That said, whatever they may have gone through doesn’t need to happen to you as well. Genetic predisposition is only half the equation – lifestyle is the other one. 

Understanding and managing your experience

Think of it this way: as a peri- or menopausal woman, do you sometimes feel like ‘your body is letting you down’? Well, you may well be the one letting your body down! 

Nature has programmed your body for a smooth transition when your ovaries gradually cease to function. Two other body parts – your fat tissues and your adrenal glands - are able to produce a certain amount of estrogen. This means that instead of going ‘cold turkey’ with your estrogen levels when the ovaries stop producing them, these other body parts ‘take over’ (to a certain extent, not to the whole amount of estrogen your ovaries used to produce, because after all, you are changing). 

And why is estrogen important? Better mood, higher energy levels, bone density, skin elasticity and hydration, amongst others.

Adrenal gland overload leads to exhaustion 

The adrenals are two little glands looking like cone-shaped hats, sitting on top of your kidneys. Amongst other things, they produce cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones which are meant to get you up and running in the face of danger. 

Their role is to help you act, and in particular to face any danger through the sympathetic nervous system, which sets free the appropriate amount of energy to feed the muscles, brain, and heart. In case of stress, this energy is “diverted” from other processes: digestion, immunity and reproduction, all considered less important in times of danger.

It is simply a matter of priorities: the stressed organism is programmed to focus primarily on the body parts needed to either face the danger and fight – or run away.

As soon as the danger has been cleared, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in: everything calms down, digestion and reproduction can resume, and immunity is available to help heal any fresh wounds. 

Belly Fat, A Good Thing?

Since the body can produce estrogen in the fat tissue, it does like to store a bit of fat, especially around the middle, aka “love handles” and that little pouch you may never have had before. By working hard to get rid of them, you are actually overriding a natural process to avoid plummeting estrogen levels. 

On the other hand, being obese, i.e. storing more fat tissue than your body can easily handle, means your estrogen will be much higher than your remaining progesterone levels, leading to problems associated with ‘estrogen dominance’, which is deemed to be connected to a higher risk of blood clots, stroke, and thyroid imbalance. 

As with many things in life, the middle ground between ultra-skinny and obese is the way to go for hormonal balance.

Unfortunately, the chronic stress associated with today’s lifestyle is not the same as the time-limited dangerous situations which our body knows how to face. Both “social“ stress and “physical“ stress are associated with allergies and inflammatory or auto-immune conditions. 

The wolf we feared in the old days is now an alarm clock which always rings too early, an unkind supervisor, the delayed train that gets us late to the school gates, the empty bank account before the next pay check, the constant background noise, etc. This stress is less extreme, but more constant or repetitive.

After a while, the body will be “desensitized” to the stress hormones and won’t be able to return to a balanced state. The regeneration function will no longer kick in… until you are exhausted. The term ‘adrenal fatigue’ is subject to debate as a diagnosis, but the role of the adrenal glands as such is now very much recognized.

Luckily, you can do a lot, at relatively little cost, to look after yourself. 

It all starts with a good night’s sleep. Which, if your hormones are out of whack, may currently evade you. But even if you do sleep at night, you may not have enough breaks during the day, especially around mealtimes. Or your job schedule may be out of sync with your natural rhythm. 

If your hormones and overactive sympathetic nervous system are making sleep evasive, restorative yoga can help reboot your relaxation response. These restful practices can “tone” the parasympathetic nervous system by re-teaching the body that it is safe to let go. Ultimately, balance can be regained between fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest.

Adding magnesium to your diet and soaking your feet in a warm footbath with magnesium flakes at night is really helpful (especially if you suffer from calf cramps during the night). 

Certain herbal remedies and essential oils are also helpful to calm you down before bed – make sure to discuss this with a qualified herbalist, as many herbal remedies influence your hormones. Switching off all screens an hour before bed and ending the day in a calm atmosphere with soft lighting is also very helpful. 

During the day, endeavor to take short breaks in natural light, to breathe deeply and to rest your eyes.

What about food?

If you watch yourself over a period of time, you’ll probably notice that some symptoms associated with perimenopause, such as hot flashes, constipation, insomnia, or mood swings appear or increase after consuming certain foods or drinks. 

Coffee, alcohol and sugar are the usual suspects, but for some women, gluten, chocolate, dairy or very spicy foods may be to blame, too. Reducing or even eliminating the suspects, eating slowly at regular intervals, will always be beneficial.

Drinking enough water and adding dark leafy greens to your diet are also recommended, because the liver and kidneys are working hard to keep your bloodstream filtered and balanced. 

Hormonal changes also influence the gut flora, as well as the pH (acidity level) of your vagina and your skin. This can lead to fungus, thrush and digestive issues. Your doctor can recommend prebiotics and probiotics (including vaginal ones, especially if you tend to have urinary tract infections), and cutting out sugar will also be helpful in these cases.

To move or not to move?

Neither too little, nor too much, is again the motto when it comes to movement in perimenopause. Moving regularly is great for your mood, to keep the weight gain in a healthy range, and to maintain enough muscles to do anything you feel like doing until late in life. Muscle strength is also beneficial for bone density, which will tend to diminish as estrogen levels drop. 

But please, keep the middle ground in mind here, too. It takes longer for your body to recover from exhausting sports practices, and your joints are less stable, so you could well find yourself more injury-prone than you used to be. 

Find activities you really enjoy, maybe join a group, which has the added benefit of social interaction. Think of yoga, qigong, tai chi, dancing, pilates… and just going for a brisk walk in nature. Exposing your skin to a reasonable dose of sunlight has the added benefit of helping your body produce vitamin D, which is also needed for immunity and bone density. 

My experience with students is that they often don’t even realize how exhausted they are. They join a class to break a sweat in order to lose weight and feel ‘fit’, and then they fall asleep in the final relaxation, or they break down in tears in a restorative yoga pose. 

If that’s something you’ve experienced – be it in perimenopause or later in life – take note. Looking after yourself is not optional. 

And neither is listening to your body’s need for rest. What worked when you were younger may be harming you now. Balancing exertion with rest will only make your exercise - and your life - more healthy and rewarding.

Take the opportunity to look after yourself with a deep dive into the experience of relaxation at GloForward’s upcoming program, Tap Into Peace & Release Exhaustion.

Susanne Haegele

Susanne is a pre-and postnatal yoga teacher, trained by the Birthlight school, specializing in women's wellbeing. After working for many years as a translator in international organizations, Susanne came to yoga to heal her back pain and was amazed to discover the effects of a more natural lifestyle on her hypothyroidism and womanhood. As a certified yoga instructor since 2007, she now leads workshops on fertility, the menstrual cycle, menopause, and the pelvic floor, as well as women's circles. German by birth, French by upbringing, she has lived in the UK, Croatia, Italy and is currently based on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Her book, Hormonal Harmony: A Natural Guide to Women's Wellbeing, has been published in French, Spanish and is now available in English.

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